Packaging and labeling evidence

Packaging and labeling evidence

Our criminal justice system demands that law enforcement agencies are held responsible and accountable for the preservation and safekeeping of property and evidence collected or seized pursuant to lawful authority. Adherence to the proper handling, packaging and labeling of evidence will not only reduce the inherent cost to correct any errors, it will mitigate potential liability to the agency. We all have a clear understanding that law enforcement agencies across the country have established procedures and protocols in this area, however, from time to time, it may be a good idea to review the manner and scope by which property and evidence is packaged, marked and entered into the evidence management software to ensure that agency members are properly trained and following established policies and procedures.  

General and detailed photographs of evidentiary items and their relative location as found at the scene are essential to any investigation. Subsequent photographs should also capture evidence as it is being collected.  As an example, officers/investigators can memorialize a loaded firearm rendered safe through photographs, documenting its condition, whether or not a round was chambered, and the number of cartridges contained in the magazine or cylinder. In all cases, this practice will demonstrate to potential jurors that the evidence was handled in a manner consistent with professional standards.  Reliable digital evidence management systems capable of tracking chain-of-custody are equally important in this day and age. All evidence should be properly sealed. Although only on rare occasions, officers have been known to place their initials and badge numbers on the seal tape only, rendering the seal useless and perhaps jeopardizing the integrity of the evidence in question. The packaging must be properly secured, so as to prevent the loss of trace evidence and/or the contamination thereof.  

The type of evidence will dictate the most effective way to package it. Specially designed boxes are the optimal method of packaging firearms, knives or other sharp instruments.  All evidence items should include the agency case number, item number, crime classification, date and a brief description of the contents including serial numbers if applicable, and the submitting officer’s initials and badge number. Avoid describing the contents of a package as “miscellaneous items”.  Biological evidence must be properly labeled for safety and special handling considerations. Clear and succinct description of packaged evidence enhances data entry into the evidence management software. 

The property and evidence control form should closely match the description of the packaged contents. This will facilitate data entry into the evidence and records management systems by evidence room personnel and aid detectives assigned to investigate criminal cases for prosecution. As is the case with good report writing, a clear and concise description of evidentiary items will effectively benefit the submitting officer as well as the investigator during courtroom testimony. Consistency in this basic but important function of our profession is the key to our credibility and by extension, successful prosecution of criminal cases.